Although the dryland rice covered huge areas, and occasionally we would see sorghum or maize in fields, more intensive cultivation would happen in the valley bottoms. In these lowlands all kinds of crops, including rice, would be grown, in paddies, in carefully raised mounds of earth. Irrigation systems would allow careful application of water from nearby rivers and lakes to the fields, neither depriving nor swamping the growing crops. Some of these had been created in existing bas fond, but others seemed to have been grubbed up out of the gallery forest – depriving a much richer biodiversity of its rightful place.
Another activity was prevalent deep in these gallery forest close to rivers. This part of west Africa is well renowned for its mineral resources. One mountain on the border of Guinea and Liberia has up to 40% pure iron in its rocks but gold is also present in decent quantities. Many artisanal miners dig up the silty basins of rivers looking for the finest dust fragments of the metal. Locally it produces a mess of whitish fine dust that coats every leaf and soil crumb, and makes the streams milky for miles downstream. But these hand dug pits are tiny compared to the destruction by logging, large scale mining and shifting agriculture.
As we passed back through Kortor, with all our friends of the morning waving us as we passed through, I realised just how richer the forest was close to the park. You could feel the distinct coolness, the moisture both trapped in the air and on the ground, and the innumerable species of plants, and no doubt animals, that were thriving in this environment. Who wouldn’t want that?
Mauritius is known from the outside for its tourist resorts and beaches; nationally it is inextricably linked with sugar, but it does get a bit sickly after a while. I craved a different scenery. To the south of Moka, I eventually found this. Instead of taking the main motorway south from Curepipe I would head off from Valetta on a quiet back road. I remember the cross roads where I would turn off well ,it was in amongst a small wooded grove. As soon as you left the main road you could see an industrial complex on the right. It was quite modern. Indeed I had seen several of these dotted around the island. It was an attempt in the 1960s to diversify Mauritius’ dependency on the sugar. Incentives were given to build garment factories and women, yes it was mainly women, were encouraged to sit at row after row of sewing machines and looms. It was all quite modern for the time, but as usual with small islands, they were eventually undercut by much larger factories in south and south east Asia. Now only a few remain, and the rest are industrial relics, albeit more modern than the old sugar factories.
Centre of the island
The mountains fringing the central plain
The scenery changes to the south into a scrubby woodland. I realised this was not the natural vegetation but a sprawling regrowth over what had once been tea plantation. I could spy the odd tea plant sitting in amongst the weeds. As I went further south, I saw active tea plantations. There were always people in these fields as I went by, tending carefully to the small dark green trees, or weeding in amongst them, or occasionally I would see the ladies with baskets on their backs nipping the new tips off and tossing them behind them.
I passed through this area a few times, but once I noted from my map that in amongst the plantation was a small village called Dubreil. Curiosity got the better of me once and I turned off. I was always a little cautious about heading off the main roads; for one thing the maps never made it quite clear whether these were public roads. But I passed by a lot of people walking the road in their different colour overalls. I entered this rather drab little village; I think again the drabness was more the constant battle against the cool moist air in these upland areas than the motivation of the locals. But this village had a quietness that most of Mauritius lacked. People were going about their business but there were few bright colours in their clothes, the children were not playing around in the streets and there was a distinct lack of vendors on the main road. I realised this was really a corporate village. The houses all looked similar; many detached with their own gardens but all so similar and plain that it was like all life and individuality had been sucked out of them.
The village was set behind the offices and complex of the tea factory; whose gardens were the best tended and most colourful around. The village was there to house just the people who worked in the fields or the factory. Who would live at the end of this cul de sac, miles from the nearest town with nothing more than tea plants to look at. I felt uneasy and quite melancholic to spend any more time there so turned the car straight around and headed back.